5 tweaks to make the new Gmail even better

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

If you use Android, there's a good chance you use Gmail. And that means you've probably heard about Google's big Gmail makeover.

New Gmail Tweaks - Google

Google officially unveiled a new interface for the Gmail Web client on Tuesday. The updated design will automatically roll out to everyone soon; for now, you can manually switch your account over by clicking on the prompt at the bottom-right corner of your inbox. 

Google's redesigned Gmail brings about some pretty substantial changes. The interface itself takes a more minimalist approach, with lots of open space and less prominent on-screen buttons. The left-side navigation area gets an upgrade, the search box gets a dropdown customization menu, and the trademark "conversation view" gets a fresh coat of paint as well.

But let's face it: Change isn't easy -- especially when it happens to a tool so near and dear to our hearts. If you aren't completely in love with Gmail's new look, try these five simple tweaks to tune up the design and optimize it for your use.

New Gmail Tweak #1: Condense Those Freakin' Rows

One of the most striking changes in Google's new Gmail design is how spaced out everything now appears (man, those message lines are huge!). The good news, though, is that it's actually quite easy to return Gmail's spacing to its old, more compact state.

The trick: Just click on the new settings icon (the little gear-looking thing at the top-right of the page -- not the one all the way at the top in that black bar, but the one below it, in-line with the word "Mail"). In the pop-up menu that appears, change the "Density" setting from "Comfortable" to "Compact."

Presto change-o: You're now back to smaller, less space-hogging lines. Here's hoping that same option comes to the new Google Reader soon, too.

New Gmail Tweak #2: Adjust Your Theme 

Maybe you like all the stark white space in Gmail's new default look. If so, bask in your blankness and skip to step 3.

If you want something with a little more color, though, click on that settings icon once more and select "Themes." There, you can choose from an array of new color schemes made to work with the new Gmail. Even if you used a theme before, it's possible it's no longer available with the new interface and you've been switched to something different as a result (my favorite old "Shiny" theme was among the casualties).

Click through any of the themes to try them out and find one you like. Me, I'm using "Dusk" at the moment. It's not quite as nice on the eyes as the dark blue gradient I used to have with my old Gmail theme, but it's pretty darn close.

New Gmail Tweak #3: Clean Up Your Sidebar

The new Gmail is all about a clean and simplified look. So how 'bout cleaning up that sidebar a little bit, too?

Grab the free Minimalist for Gmail extension for the Chrome Web browser. Many of the extension's features won't work properly at the moment -- the app was designed to work with the old Gmail interface, and its author is still working on a revamp to match Google's new changes -- but a few of its key components can still do a lot of good.

Once you've installed the extension, head into its settings (they should pop up automatically in Chrome once the extension installs; you can also get to them from Chrome's extensions management tool). Click on the "Navigation" section of the extension's settings, and check the "Hide dividing lines" and "Hide invites" options.

Now go load or refresh Gmail, and notice how much less cluttered that sidebar suddenly seems.

New Gmail Tweak #4: Fine-Tune Your Sidebar 

While we're looking at the side of your screen, take a minute to play with Gmail's new sidebar customization commands to make that area of the page work exactly the way you want. With the new Gmail interface, you can adjust the amount of space dedicated to your labels and the chat/gadgets section beneath them. Simply click on the thin line dividing those sections, and slide the line up or down until it falls where you like.

You can also click on the small icons at the bottom of the sidebar to toggle between chat and gadgets in that lower area.

New Gmail Tweak #5: Make Your Rows Pop

This last tweak is one of my favorite ways to make Gmail better, and it still works wonderfully with Google's updated interface. Go back into the settings of the Minimalist for Gmail extension mentioned in step 3. Click on the "Main" section of the settings, and check "Show hover/select row highlights." While you're there, you can also click on the swatch of color next to the item to pick a hue that works for you.

Now load or refresh Gmail and move your mouse up and down through messages in your inbox. Each row will highlight as you pass over it, giving you a visually pleasing mouseover-style effect that mimics the mouse-driven color-changing natively built into other parts of Gmail. Not too shabby.

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You can play with some of the other options in the Minimalist extension, but be warned: Many of them won't work with the new Gmail design, and some may do weird things as a result of all the shifted elements. Once the author comes out with a new Gmail update, the extension will undoubtedly provide even more customization control for us Gmail power users. 

UPDATE: A new version is now available. See my follow-up story, "Customize Gmail and Google Reader with this one simple tool," for details.

Got any other cool tips for making the most of Google's new Gmail interface? Share the love and leave 'em in the comments below.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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